BOSTON — What looked to be a potential upset-in-the-making at Harvard’s Bright Hockey Center Friday evening ended up as another late surge by the top-seeded Crimson. Despite a fierce, even dominant 40-minute performance from the upstart eighth-seed, the hosts hit the gas when it mattered most in a 3-0 win over Cornell in the first game of the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals.
Senior co-captain Jenny Brine, sophomore center Liza Ryabkina and junior defender Kathryn Farni scored for the home team. Co-captain Sarah Vaillancourt assisted on two of the goals, and the Crimson (18-9-3) were backed up by 35 saves from third-year ‘keeper Christina Kessler. Jenny Niesluchowski made 31 saves for the Big Red (12-13-5) in the frustrating loss.
Harvard started fast, drawing a power play only a minute into the action. First-line center Brine teased the crowd right away with a redirection of Ryabkina’s point-shot, but the attempt hit Niesluchowski’s left post.
The Big Red made a bid of their own with 12 minutes on the clock, as freshman Catherine White drove up the left wing with Rebecca Johnston in a two-on-one. White elected to shoot, and Kessler kicked a rebound out into the slot where Johnston had a marvelous look at an open net. Kessler popped her left leg out into the lane though, denying Johnston – the league’s second-highest scorer – her 26th goal of the year.
Harvard flew back up-ice moments later in its own two-on-one, but Katherine Chute’s patient wrist-shot knicked the iron and deflected into the far corner. Cornell responded yet again, as the potent line of White, Johnston, and frosh Chelsea Karpenko created another shot-rebound combination, but with the same end result: Kessler stopping the puck.
She did very well. She did everything she needed to do, praised head coach Katey Stone of her netminder. She was solid, she was solid through some screens, and played well when the puck was behind the net she did her job, which was well-done.
The first ended in a scoreless draw, with the visitors holding a 13-11 lead in shots despite taking two penalties to Harvard’s one.
Superstar Vaillancourt was dismissed for an elbowing minor three minutes into the second stanza, and Cornell buzzed Kessler’s zone for the duration. The Big Red’s best chance on the man up came on a Johnston tip of Sam Wauer’s left-wing point shot, but the new angle wasn’t high or wide enough to elude Kessler’s right pad.
Early on I thought we played very well, and very even with them, mused Cornell head coach Doug Derraugh.
Harvard tested Niesluchowski asVaillancourt returned, with second-year winger Kate Buesser firing for the keeper’s far post from point-blank range. The junior netminder made a full-extension kick save with the right toe, keeping the score nil-nil.
The crisp, physical, fast-paced contest belied the disparity between the seeds, with Cornell testing the home side’s mettle with a voracity equal to or beyond the esteemed Crimson’s. Even when Harvard controlled the play, as it did for a number of shifts toward the end of the period, Niesluchowski was there to spare her teammates a deficit.
We put a lot of pressure on them, but we weren’t able to capitalize, said Stone of the game’s first half.
The game’s fragile shell finally fractured with two and a half minutes on the clock, as the junior blueliner Farni ripped a low and explosive shot through a defender’s blade and Niesluchowski’s five-hole for the 1-0 lead. So stood the score after 40 minutes of play, despite a 25-22 shot advantage for the Red.
That first goal was a huge one, Stone declared. We had put a lot of pressure on them, but their goaltender had done a good job. That gave us a little more energy; I thought we came out flat today, so that gave us some more energy, and put us back on our toes.
The Crimson plowed ahead in the third, doubling their lead when Ryabkina bullied her way out of the right-wing corner and across Niesluchowski’s face. She flipped the puck past the goaltender for the unassisted goal.
We backed off, gave them a little too much room, made a couple mistakes, and you can’t do that against a team like this. They’ll make you pay, said Derraugh. Early on, we had a lot of chances, and didn’t cash in on them. I think that would’ve given us a little bit of momentum. You’re not going to win a game with zero goals.
The ice leaned hard toward the Cornell goal as the period developed, with Harvard manufacturing a number of opportunities to further stretch its lead. Sophomore Leanna Coskren stood alone at the right post when she received a cross-ice pass from classmate Chute five minutes in, but the defenseman mishandled the puck and failed to rap it home.
Brine made up for the missed opportunity at 10:44 of the third, as she took a Vaillancourt lateral feed in the heart of the slot and wristed it over Niesluchowski’s blocker.
I think we battled hard. It just took a little while to figure out how we were going to win, Stone said.
The teams tangle once more on Saturday afternoon, with Harvard looking to end Cornell’s season for the second year in a row.
They all know they’re capable of playing better than they did today, intoned Stone. We’re looking for a little bit better effort from everybody, and hopefully good things will happen.
For Cornell, it’s about harnessing the better two-thirds of tonight’s effort and converting it into goals, and wins.
Before the series started, we told our team that it’s a best of three series, said Derraugh. It’s 120 minutes. It’s not 60 minutes, it’s not 40 minutes, it’s not 20 minutes. Tonight we had a pretty good 40 minutes, and a bad 20 minutes. We need to come out and have a good 60 minutes tomorrow, even it up, and then it’s anybody’s ballgame.